Design properly

In Concept Cars Don Norman writes Want to design properly? Take concept cars seriously as design prototypes. Explore […]

In Concept Cars Don Norman writes

Want to design properly? Take concept cars seriously as design prototypes. Explore those constraints. Playfulness is a wonderful design stance that can produce out-of-the box breakthroughs. But there is playful and silly. Ford seems to have confused the two. Too bad — there are excellent ideas hidden away inside the SYNUS armor-plated exterior.

No Don, no.

The point of the concept car is to design properly but not to design for use, and the two are not synonymous. The point of the concept car is to create a shift in cognition in the viewer, to help him or her imagine something that was not possible before. We can all imagine a useful ergonomic car (and some of us spend huge amounts of time doing so) but it’s not so easy to picture the role of wifi in a car. And because a mental status quo it is almost impossible to break mental models with timid steps.

A certain foolishness, a certain grandness is needed in a concept car. It’s physicalized science fiction. It’s made to make you dream of going to the moon, not made to carry you there. When pragmatic car designers who prototype the real cars see the concept cars, the spark of innovation in their mind is fueled, and they can press against the many well know constraints of car design to create a surprise. Do you remember the first time you saw a Bug on the road, or a PT cruiser? The design concept that gave birth to that initial moment of pleasurable surprise was born first in an unbuildable concept car, when its very unbuildablness gave the designer the freedom to dream. Only later would it be dialed back, the most useful ideas harvested and put to work in a real car.
from The Origin of Things

Concept cars are also made to a certain degree to help the consumer get excited by cars again– something that’s hard to do with normal SUV’s and midsize cars, no matter how many mountain roads the commercials show you. Concept cars are thusly comic book cars, ridiculously endowed with extreme qualities to entice and arouse interest, and sometimes repulse. The thrill of the impossibleness makes you dream of being a hero, capable of great feats due to the wonders of technology.
from The Origin of Things

It’s hard enough to to get an industry to look forward, it’s hard enough to say “lay down your rulers, we’re gonna dream now” but to try to make the concept cars really work in today’s world would lengthen the time it takes to create a vision of the future, make it less practical as an exercise and castrate the results.

If you make the concept car practical, all you are doing is making everyday design slightly more edgy, and simply creating another design team like the others. The concept car must be an unbuildable dream, because dreaming is what makes innovation possible.

Of course, it’s pleasantly ironic to remember that making cars more suitable for humans was once driven by a concept car. Freed of the constraints of making concept cars all about sex and science, Marc Newson designed the 021C in 1999 that was all about having a good trunk, making it easy to get in and out of the car, and making far more readable dials and usable switches. Sometimes the wacky idea is to make things usable. But that should make us protect the concept car’s inherent unshipableness even more fiercely. Only in a dream, sometimes, can we dream of better products. And yesterday’s foolishness is today’s best practice.

from Marc Newson’s site

Look Don, the seat swivels!

Do check out The Origin of Things. It’s always good to remember where stuff comes from.


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  1. 3

    GREAT! loved this piece. Thank you!
    concept cars
    are so necessary to be outside the product lifecycle, as a place to
    gain inspiration from and bring back into it. A constraintless world is
    just invaluable to the total design experience.

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